Doc Watson died on Tuesday 5/29/12, at the age of 89. It's hard to overstate his influence on virtually every folk and bluegrass guitarist over the last fifty years, and his music enthralled millions of fans around the world, including those who saw him at the National Folk Festival in East Lansing in August 2001.
Arthel "Doc" Watson was born on March 3, 1923, and lost his sight from an eye infection while still a baby. His parents encouraged not only his early love of music, but a general sense of self-reliance; his father put him on one end of a two-man crosscut saw "to show me that there was not a reason in the world that I couldn't pull my own weight," Doc recalled, and throughout his life Doc did carpentry around his house, shingled his roof, and caned chairs.
Doc's family sang and played music, and also owned a phonograph which introduced him to Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and other country stars. He started playing harmonica, then a handmade banjo from his father, and finally began playing guitar in his teens. He developed his own style by listening closely to recordings and imitating what he heard, starting with Merle Travis-style fingerpicking. Eventually he mastered the ability to flatpick the melodies of fiddle tunes, at full speed and with astonishing precision, and that's the style that first brought him national attention.
Folklorist Ralph Rinzler discovered Doc in 1960. Rinzler was in North Carolina to record old-time musicians Clarence Ashley, Clint Howard, and Fred Price, and they invited Doc to provide guitar backup. In those days, Doc was mostly performing rockabilly music on electric guitar, but Rinzler convinced him to switch to acoustic guitar for these sessions. Once Rinzler heard Doc's playing and singing, he persuaded Doc (with considerable effort) to come to New York and perform for the growing folk music audience there. But Rinzler insisted that Doc stick to acoustic guitar, and to the traditional and country songs in his repertoire. (Once Doc's traditional credentials had been established, he later felt able to perform other types of music he liked, including Gershwin's "Summertime," Tom Paxton songs, and, in 1995, a CD returning to his rockabilly roots with the clever title of "Docabilly.")
In the early Sixties, Doc Watson quickly became a star within folk circles, playing in clubs like Gerde's Folk City and at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Rinzler's field recordings of Doc were released on Folkways, followed in 1964 by Doc's first solo album on Vanguard, the label for which he made many other LPs that ended up in virtually every acoustic guitarist's collection.
Doc had married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947, and they had two children, Merle and Nancy. Merle taught himself guitar and began performing with his father in 1964; Doc's second Vanguard album was titled "Doc Watson & Son." Merle never sang (and barely spoke) on stage, but his skill on guitar soon equaled Doc's, and together they were an incredible team. For many fans, the highlights of their concerts and albums were their extraordinary instrumental duets, flatpicking fiddle tunes at lightning speed, one playing melody and the other harmony.
As a duo -- and later a trio, with T. Michael Coleman joining them on electric bass -- Doc and Merle toured constantly, playing to ever-bigger crowds. Doc's reputation grew to a broader audience when he participated in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark 1972 album "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," alongside country legends Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, and Jimmy Martin. (The album includes a snippet of conversation between Doc and Merle Travis, meeting for the first time, where Doc explains that he named his son after Travis.) Doc won the first of many Grammy Awards in 1973.
Tragedy struck in 1985, when Merle was killed in a tractor accident. For the rest of his life, Doc felt the loss not only of his son but also his constant companion and performing partner. He considered retirement but carried on with his career, using a number of other sidemen (most frequently Jack Lawrence, David Holt, or Merle's son Richard Watson), though never with the same joy as he'd had alongside Merle. His picking speed diminished a bit as he got older, and he tended to let his accompanists take more of the intricate solos, but his playing always remained impeccably tasteful. Meanwhile, Doc's wonderful singing, which had often been upstaged by his guitar work, deservedly got more of the spotlight.
In 1988, Doc started an annual bluegrass and folk festival, MerleFest, in his son's memory. One of Doc's last performances was at this year's MerleFest at the end of April 2012, which drew 76,000 attendees.
Doc Watson recorded around 25 or 30 albums during his career. One of my own favorites is "Doc Watson on Stage" (Vanguard, 1971), which captures Doc and Merle in a typical concert from that period. Some of Doc's later albums sounded a little cluttered as he added extra musicians to make a more commercial-sounding record, but "On Stage" is just Doc and Merle and their acoustic guitars, with a nice selection of songs, lots of Doc's warm and funny stage conversation, and of course a few breathtaking guitar duets. Another excellent choice is "The Three Pickers" (Rounder, 2003) a concert with Doc, Earl Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs (available on both CD and DVD), or some of the compilations like "Foundation: The Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection 1964-1998" (Sugar Hill, 2000). There are also several commercially-available DVDs of Doc's music, both instructional guitar videos and concert footage. Kent Gustavson has written Doc's biography, "Blind But Now I See" (Blooming Twig Books, 2010).
The day after Doc's passing, "Fresh Air" rebroadcast an excellent interview that Terry Gross recorded with Doc in 1988. I recommend it -- here's the link:
We were fortunate to have Doc perform in East Lansing a few times over the years, at the 2001 National Folk Festival, in the 1990s at the Michigan Festival (with Robin & Linda Williams opening), and Doc & Merle played at the Mariah Coffeehouse on the Michigan State campus back in the 1970s, I recall. Thinking back over all three of the National Folk Festivals here and the ten Great Lakes Folk Festivals that followed, I believe that Doc's appearance was probably the most widely-anticipated of any performer's. In the weeks beforehand, and throughout the Festival itself, countless fans told me how thrilled they were to be able to see Doc in person, how much they cherished his recordings, and how he had inspired them to take up guitar. They, and I, share that love for Doc Watson with millions of other fans around the world, and we all mourn his loss this week.
A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.